Every fall and winter, about 20,000 gray whales make a long journey from the Bering Sea and Alaska in the north to Baja California, in the south. California's coast is a great place to observe this massive migration. The whales get so close to the shore that no boat ride is required to observe them. Migrating gray whales, dolphins and killer whales can be seen from mid-December through mid-April. There are also opportunities to see blue whales, humpbacks, and other whale species outside the migration season.
Whale Watching on the Mendocino Coast
Every March, Fort Bragg holds a Whale Festival to mark large pods of gray whales passing down the coast. New-born gray whale calves can be seen passing by with their mothers on their way to the rich, cold waters further north. This biannual migration is a staggering feat for any animal. The journey from the Bering Sea of Alaska to their calving waters in the Sea of Cortez of Mexico's Baja Peninsula is about 10,000 mi (16,000 km) in length, making this trip the longest migration of any mammal. They pass the coast of Northern California from December to February and head back north March to May.
Mendocino Coast is a premier whale-watching spot in California, offering many opportunities to observe these giant mammals every morning during migration season. There are plenty of whale-watching trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park and around Point Arena Lighthouse. The Mendocino coast stretches over 90 mi (145 km) and offers picture-perfect viewing locations that offer vantage points above sea level.
Whale Watching on California's Central Coast
San Francisco witnesses hundreds of gray whales passing along the shore from January through April. Point Reyes in Marin County is the prime location to spot them. Humpback whale-watching season lasts from November through March. Tours to Farallon Islands are especially popular. Orcas, humpbacks, blue, and sperm whales are especially abundant there.
The San Francisco Bay area offers many choices for whale watching boat tours. Find out which is best for your itinerary and reserve your seat! For a starting point, check out San Francisco Whale Tours. Offering 2.5 hour tours starting at $120 per person, you are likely to see not only whales but, harbor seals and incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge as well.
Monterey Bay enjoys two whale-watching seasons: mid-December to mid-April for gray whales, dolphins, and killer whales, and mid-April through mid-December for humpback, blue whales, and killer whales. Visitors can observe them from the shore in Monterey Submarine Canyon and Santa Cruz, which features whales off coast at any time of the year. If you still haven't got your fix of marine wildlife after whale watching by boat or land, make sure to tour the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers hours of fun and educational opportunities for the whole family.
Whale watching in Southern California
Channel Islands National Park offers premier whale and dolphin watching in the Santa Barbara Channel. Twenty-nine species of sea mammals have been spotted here by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, including gray, blue, humpback whales, common, bottlenose or Risso’s dolphins, and sea lions. Island Packers offers 3-hour tours year-round for affordable prices.
Los Angeles and Long Beach enjoy different types of whales passing along during different seasons. Gray whales can be spotted during winter and spring migration seasons. November–March is a good time to spot humpback and minke whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Harbor Breeze Cruises depart from Long Beach harbor several times per day.
Orange County offers cruises out of Newport Harbor and Dana Point, that is home to large pods of whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching offers 2-hour tours all year. Newport Landing Whale Watching offers tours three times per day. On Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula, Davey’s Locker provides whale-watching cruises several times per day. The underwater Newport Canyon is one of the whales' favorite feeding ground. The best period is from December through April, though there is plenty to see here all year round.
Over 20,000 gray whales pass San Diego from mid-December to mid-March. Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma Peninsula is the most popular observation post. In January, as many as eight grays can be seen every hour. This month features "Whale Watch Weekend" programs with kids' activities and special educational presentations.
Whale watching tips
Spending the day on a boat scanning the horizon for whales could be one of the most memorable experiences of your or your loved-ones lives. But without some key items to add to your day, your time aboard a cruise could quickly sour. Anticipate your needs, as well as what you might want to have a great time on the water.
What to bring
Some boat tour companies offer food, beverages, and a sheltered viewing location on deck. For those that don't, be prepared with snacks, drinks, and a blanket to protect yourself from the wind. 3 hours on the water is a long time to be uncomfortable for those that are unprepared. On sunny days, don't skimp on the sunblock. Additional items to enhance your experience are binoculars and a camera. As a final note, if you are new to being on a boat and you are not sure if you will have motion sickness, having medication on hand is a good idea.
What to wear
While aboard, be prepared for strong winds, ocean spray, and a lot of sunlight. We recommend wearing closed toed shoes, a full-brim hat, long sleeves and long pants. If you are on a winter cruise, be sure to wear insulated layers—waterproof is best. If the summer heat has you in shorts and a t-shirt, sunscreen will be your best friend.
Where to stay
The list of hotels, motels, campgrounds, and Airbnb's is almost endless along the coast of California. Check for accommodations that suits your needs along any of the whale watching hotspots listed above.
Where can I see whales off the shore of California?
Migrating whales tend to stay within a mile or two of the coastline. Finding an elevated viewing spot is a common technique for spotting whales from land. Popular viewing locations include: Palos Verde's Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Point Dume Nature Preserve, Point Fermin Angels Gate Park, Dana Point Headlands, Birch Aquarium La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Park, Cabrillo National Monument.
When is the best time of day to see whales?
Morning is best, when off shore winds are calm.
Are whales more active in the morning or afternoon?
Both morning and afternoon are equally good times to spot a whale as these marine mammals are active throughout the day.